Australia is in danger of creating an archipelago of ghost universities as a result of catastrophic job losses in the tertiary sector.
That’s the grim prospect facing Australian students and university workers according to a new report released by The Centre for Future Work at the independent think tank, the Australia Institute.
The report calls on the Commonwealth Government to stop the job losses by providing $3.75 billion in additional funding to universities per year until normal teaching and international education can resume.
The document, titled ‘An Avoidable Catastrophe: Pandemic Job Losses and their Consequences’ outlines the decimation of Australia’s tertiary education system, with over 40,000 jobs lost in the sector in 2021.
That’s an astounding ratio of one job in five, disappearing.
With a chronic dependence on revenue from overseas students, the COVID-19 pandemic has shattered the business model for many Australian universities. As a consequence, a work force that was already struggling with a retinue of insecure and casualised work is seeing those jobs disappear altogether.
Dr Jim Stanford is an Economist and Director at the Centre for Future Work. He told On the Job that even though the tertiary sector was under pressure before the pandemic, he was startled by what his research discovered.
“I was surprised by two things. Number one, the scale of the job loss – 40,000 positions lost from tertiary education in the last 12 months.
“And number two, that they’re getting worse, not better. Even as the rest of the economy opened up and we regained most of the jobs that were lost early in the pandemic, in Australian universities, job losses were growing because the universities were cracking down on hiring,” Stanford explained.
Dr Alison Barnes is the National President of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). She told ABC News that these job losses have been devastating.
“The job losses have been quite catastrophic across tertiary education particularly in our public universities,” said Barnes.
“Initially, casual staff lost jobs in the first wave and then we saw those job losses moving into our professional and administrative services and also our traditional teaching and research academics.
“Essentially, the problem of these job losses as that they are eroding universities and their core function, the capacity to deliver high quality teaching and deliver research which will help us deal with problems created by, for example, Covid-19.”
Stanford believes that governments, universities and other tertiary institutions need to take stock and reconnect with their core purpose if they are to thrive.
“I think we need a longer conversation about the need to reorient Australia’s university system around the public service of educating Australians and doing research and development, rather than viewing it as a kind of a business,” Stanford told On the Job
“I think over the last couple decades, a lot of universities have built empires based on their international students by really hitting up those students for outrageously high tuition fees and in some cases, I would say, neglecting their ultimate purpose, which should be a public service for Australians.”
Alison Barnes also outlined the strain that job losses and budget cuts were having on academic staff, many of whom were already walking a tight rope of seasonal employment, grape vining from one semester to the next in the hope of picking up work.
“Every day I talk to early-career academics in their twenties who rely on marking and tutoring work to supplement their PhD stipends so they can become the medical and engineering researchers of tomorrow. We are losing a generation of researchers and teachers. It’s an incredible brain drain,” she said.
“But worst of all, future students will miss out on a gold standard education system in which to thrive. That’s despite politicians telling us again and again that high-quality education and research is the most important human resource we have in this country.
Jim Stanford is adamant that our tertiary institutions need to correct course immediately to deal with the many challenges now confronting Australia including the pandemic, climate change and structural economic disruptions.
“We’re going to see some immense structural change in our economy over coming years partly because of the pandemic. We know there are some industries that aren’t going to come back,” said Stanford.
“There are other industries that are going to expand, partly because of other things like climate change. People need skills and training, not just young people, but even mid-career people who want to try and adapt and get a new career in one of those growing sectors.
“We’ve seen with the pandemic how critical public research is to our economic wellbeing, but also our security and our health. We’ve all lamented the fact that Australia was so dependent on imports of everything, from vaccines to ventilators, to masks, and wondered why can’t we do that stuff ourselves?
“That argument applies to many other sectors of the economy as well, not just health and medical technology. So, the need is clearer than ever for Australia to strengthen its research capacities.”